Like all plugged-in, happening cinephiles, I’ve been mighty curious about this Pierre Étaix fellow we’ve been hearing so much about since Janus Films began touring his films around the country back in October, followed by Criterion announcing their upcoming Blu-ray release of all five features and three shorts. If As Long As You’re Healthy (1966) is any indication, the talk has been warranted, to say the very least, and that Blu-ray has quickly shot up my list of must-haves. In the meantime, if you’re in Portland, OR this week, you’ll have a chance to catch these films on the big screen, in 35mm, and I can only imagine how well a film such as this would play with an audience.
Essentially a series of four short films, As Long as You’re Healthy is far from a simple mishmash of comedic concepts. In the first, a man tries to read a vampire novel before bed, but is unable to keep the images on the page, interpreting every interruption as the story come to life. In the second, Étaix shows that the many frustrations (rude audience members, terrible sight lines, overpriced snacks, advertisements, etc.) we so commonly associate with moviegoing have been with us long before we were able to complain about them on the Internet. The third is the most expansive, going through the neuroses and traffic conditions one must learn to love when you live in a city. And finally, a day in the country might be an escape for a hunter or some picnickers, but it’s just another work day for a farmer, and none of them can quite manage to share the space, wide-open though it may be.
Billed primarily as a study of the absurdities of mid-20th-century Western life, it’s certainly more than potent in that arena, for reasons that should be fairly obvious. Much of the hilarity comes because the struggles and obstacles the characters encounter are so relatively petty, but even nearly fifty years later, still as relevant as ever. Be he addressing finding parking in the city, finding one’s footing on a sidewalk, insomnia, shutting out construction noise, or just trying to enjoy a damn movie, these are the kind of intensely frustrating hassles that have spawned a million #firstworldproblems tweets, and not a few stand-up careers. Étaix addresses them with a kind of detached bemusement familiar to fans of silent comedy, or most especially the work of Jacques Tati.
Indeed, most of the film is free of dialogue, letting sound effects and good old-fashioned mime work drive the narrative(s), and in this way, the film could also be read as a study of the first half of the 20th century. If one takes this approach, he first film addresses a culture centered around reading, legends, and imagination, the second the entrance of cinema as public spectacle, the third of our sudden move into cities, and the fourth showing that since our move to the cities, we’ve become totally detached from the country life in which people very much like ourselves, only a generation or two before, had been brought up.
Or perhaps it’s a look at the evolution of cinema, from the first, a totally silent piece that doesn’t even need sound effects to be appreciated, to the second which has only a few uses of sound, to the third, very much enhanced with synched sound and a few lines of dialogue, and finally the fourth, which wouldn’t work at all without synched sound, and is primarily focused on a bickering couple, much in need of a dialogue track.
Most of all, we can sit back and laugh, as this is one of the most purely enjoyable films I’ve seen all year, new or old. I wish we in Los Angeles had a chance to see these in a theater, and I very much envy those of you who will be granted that indulgence this next week. Enjoy!
As Long As You’re Healthy plays at the Northwest Film Center on Saturday, April 13th at 5pm and 9pm. Check nwfilm.org for more information.